Zachary Desormeaux Tanner: The Madonna and Child (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: On Mom’s side, I come from LeBoeufs, Thibodauxs, and Chauvins. Dad is a second-generation Tanner, after my great-grandfather, an adulterous Dixieland musician who abandoned his wife and children in Pennsylvania to start my family in Acadiana. They say he could play the piano with his toes, if he got drunk enough. I married a Desormeaux.
The Madonna and Child
A squad car quietly parked in front of Julie’s house. She was getting stoned and re-watching Scenes from a Marriage alone in bed at three a.m. when the doorbell woke Grayson down the hall. She paused the film on a frame of Johann’s scowling face, one of his fits of rage.
Your husband’s dead, Mrs. Dubose. An agent of the consulate will call first thing in the morning to work out the details of repatriation.
Julie felt a brief moment of calm when closing the door, how the tide pulls out just before a tsunami. She walked up the carpet stairs to her room and flung herself on the queen size in the master bedroom—ignoring Grayson’s whines and erupting in a fit of spit and salty tears—sliding from where she was seated on the side of the bed down onto the carpet, just beside his abandoned slippers. Face to the ceiling, she dreamed that the still fan would start spinning, that something would jar her back into it. But she would only remember that single snapshot in chiaroscuro: the smoke hanging in the air, the lamp on the nightstand coning down on Eric’s hardback Updike, and her hair fanned out behind her on the carpet, so that if someone were to pull her by the feet through a puddle of paint, she’d be nothing more than a brush.
And when she started bawling, so did baby Grayson. She swaddled him in his cloud-print blankie, the blue sky a sunset mauve in the orange nightlight, and carried him downstairs. Instinctually, she sat down in her own lazy boy. Glancing over at Eric’s chair, he flashed in and out in a blip, so much of him still alive—through death more of him alive in her precious bundle of joy. Grayson had Eric’s proud hazel eyes, those two little oyster shells watching her cry, and she really thought about it now that a few minutes had passed since the doorbell rang, which had only been a few hours since the brain hemorrhage, yet that might as well have been thirty years ago, Oh God. He fussed behind the lapel of her pink bathrobe and petted her pink areola with his tiny pink hands. And he looked up at her with his father’s eyes, closing them, sucking, disregarding or obfuscating her emotions from the tit—like father, like son. She cradled him, his little teeth pulling warm milk from her breast, Julie with her head thrown back, mouth open, throat crying or laughing, and on the back of her eyelids: Eric, standing in a three-piece suit, with his hand out to help her down from a train onto a smoky platform.
When Grayson was full, she burped him and set him down in the crib in the dining room. Then she had a cigarette on the patio. It was hot, sticky, and too overcast to see the rising sun, which woke the mourning doves regardless. The shaded cane shook. Thunder rattled a dirty coffee mug on the glass table. The wind chimes hit each other awkwardly like adolescents flirting. She pulled the price tag off the new loveseat.
Julie let her pink bathrobe fall to the kitchen floor and eyed her naked figure in the stove door. She wondered if he had made the girl fuck in the shower, too. She traipsed, flaunting her womanly vessel, through the living room and up the stairs. She rolled a joint while waiting for the bath to draw. The lights were off. The porcelain sang a sad blue in the lightning flashes through the open window. She licked to seal the joint, tootsie-twisting the tip. She turned on the sink and watched the water go down the drain. She pushed at the bell of her milk-heavy breasts, trying to remember how they’d felt before Grayson. She lit a vanilla candle and applied a lavender facemask.
The rain came. It ran right down the shingled gabling and off, past the eaves. Their contractor had forgotten gutters. He had been one of Eric’s good friends. Julie stood over the tub eying her wavy reflection. She stuck her hand out the open window, watching the drops pop into droplets on her pale palm.
She plugged her phone into the speaker atop the woodworking magazines on the toilet and queued the Chopin piece that always calmed her down. She lit the joint with her chin resting on her knees, waiting for the bath to crawl up her thighs. The first hit fogged her headache. It cradled her, snug among the minor tones of that melancholy melody. The water lifted each tiny hair on her unshaven legs and held them there in suspension. She felt dense, a stone in Virginia Woolf’s pocket. She lay back, smoking calmly. Her facemask buckled at the corners of her mouth, tugging the peach fuzz on her upper lip. She felt her eyes glaze over. Skunk-y nebulae hung thick. In the reflection of the bathroom mirror, she watched her tears drag slimy trails over her purple cheeks. The water formed a horseshoe around her bellybutton and fell in on itself. She tossed the roach into the toilet, where it hissed. Her eyes felt puffy. Eventually, the water passed her shoulders. She dunked her head and resurfaced. Then came that sad choking feeling.
The wind broke on the clapboard siding. Her cell phone was ringing. It was someone from the US consulate in Paris calling to verify her address so that he might priority-mail her “The Consular Report of the Death of an American Citizen Abroad.”
Her tears ran down her face, neck, and chest—meeting the bath between her sore nipples. The consular agent was talking shop, where to have a funeral, costs of repatriation, cremation, embalming, but she couldn’t follow what he was saying. It was soft and distant, as though there was a pillow between the speaker and her ear.
“I don’t think I can do this right now.” Her pruned fingers blurred everything behind them.
She called Mom, who offered to fly her up there so that she could be with them. Mom and Dad were visiting withering Aunt Lorelai up in Wyoming, possibly for the last time. Julie said thanks, Mom, but declined. She had Monica to turn to and they’d be home in a few days.
She didn’t like the way Grayson looked at her when she was strapping him into his car-seat. She didn’t like the way she looked at herself either, her ugly reflection on the sliding door window, Grayson looking through it, looking through her with his father’s eyes.
Julie crossed the bayou bridge a little after noon, the land and sky desaturated by summer heat. She killed the radio and turned past the row of mailboxes. Everything was green and blue and brown, waterlogged. The gravel road passed the yellow barn and the sprouting cane, Monica’s mother-in-law’s house, her sister-in-law’s, her brother-in-law’s, making a dead end after the corridor of oak trees where the little mobile home was parked, cozy at the forest edge.
Monica took Grayson from her arms. Her trailer smelled like ferret shit, chives, okra, and a salvaged roux. “What happened, boo?”
“I feel so alone.” Julie sat on the couch. The fluorescent kitchen light buzzed the fibers of her spinal cord, a taut harp string. She started to pull her wedding ring off, but noticed the tan line from their trip to Destin in June and all those days drinking by the pool since. She couldn’t take it off, because she didn’t want to think about the beach, couldn’t think about the beach for three weeks now. That’s why she was always drinking by the pool. “He started to seem so normal again right before he left. When we went to the beach. We were happy. We played put-put. He built a sandcastle. Supposedly that’s the way suicidal people act right before they do it, too. My aunt got that way her last week. Like he couldn’t enjoy me until he knew that he was leaving.” Julie was sniffling, wiping tears. “His pubes are still on the shower curtain for fuck’s sake,” she started to let go, “I noticed this morning,” and she collapsed face-first into the cushions to sob until the upholstery left marks on her face.
Helpless Monica stood before the stove wiping her greasy hands on her stained apron, her sneakers stark white against the smoke-stained linoleum. “Well, you know you can always stay here for however long you need.”
“What was it about him and twenty-three year olds?” Julie cried and cried, transcending her environment for some time.
When Monica kicked on the hood vent, the dizzying whirl comforted Julie. She wiped her eyes. Monica handed her a plastic Mardi Gras cup that looked like Coca-Cola, smelled like bourbon. Ice cubes popped and carbonation crackled cast in the plastic purple glow. She regretted not coming sooner. She wanted to hear Monica call Eric a piece of shit. “I’ve decided to flush his ashes.”
Feeling flighty, Julie passed the stinky ferret room into the small half-bath. Urine always burned when she was crying. She splashed some cold water on her face and avoided her fragile-body reflection above the sink. The water didn’t undercut the thickness of the air around her like she’d hoped.
Monica was adding water to the roux-lathered chicken and veggies.
Julie wiped her mouth on her sleeve, “I want to walk.”
A dump truck backfired on the highway. The wind pulled at her hair, so she put it up, in a bun. She walked across the shaggy grass and entered a familiar, worn trail, passing through an arbor of cypress, elm, and live oak behind the hulking pecan tree that towered above the wood. The air was thick. The pressure had dropped. The approaching storm shaded the green cane. Left and downhill at the briars led to the water. From within the thick vegetation, before she could see it, she heard the Doppler shift of a passing motorboat up ahead. The gentle lapping of the wake across cypress knees calmed her. She came through the brush and onto the dirt path a few feet above the polluted muddy banks. It smelled like gasoline. A breeze blew through the gaps in her sweater and raised gooseflesh on her belly and arms.
Across the jelly surface of the bayou, a cottonmouth dropped from live oak roots onto a Styrofoam cooler. Slunk around the back corner through a pile of Bud Light cans and slipped away unseen. Noble cypresses cast a latticework of shadow on the water. A highlighter yellow butterfly came fluttering around her shoulder and to rest upon a waxen leaf. She eyed her reflection on the slow surface of the opaque brown water, the flat Bayou Petit-Anse—drifting elm leaves and popping air bubbles sliding downstream. Feeling her face and seeing her reflection as though in dialogue. Being seen by her reflection. Now more than ever she felt on the brink of some great epiphany. The storm clouds crept in front of the sun, so that her reflection was washed away by a matte brown.
Nudging a dandelion with her shoe, she heard the drilling of a woodpecker in the trees. A raindrop the size of a Lemonhead splattered on a palm frond. Cold rain hit her nervous forehead, breaking the tension of her brow, and she looked up through broken branches, past crisscrossed spouts and the thick, overgrown vines, shaken by a sparrow’s sudden flight. The sun stung her eyes through the clouds, gray as water spilled on charcoal. Lightning struck; she decided to turn around. Then, the whisper of the drizzle on the canopy above washed over the leafy treetops, which began to bleed. Within steps, a sopping squall battered the wood, thrashed brush creaking and moaning, everything melting. The dirt path soon turned to mud, squishing underfoot. The lightning was bright and hot in the air like a grease fire, her skin wet and cold, amphibious. She came upon the clearing, the bluish trailer obscured by pouring rain. She couldn’t hear the highway anymore.
How the rain subsumed her.